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Art Therapy in Practice


Art therapy is a direction in psychotherapy, psycho-correction and rehabilitation, based on the clients’ involvement into the process of fine art creation. Despite the close connection with the medical practice, this process realizes predominantly psycho prophylactic, socializing and developing role. This paper describes history of the method, its benefits and gives examples of its usage.

The term “art therapy” can be defined from different points of view. From the therapeutic viewpoint, process of making art is described as similar to the therapy procedure. From the psychological point of view, art is defined as the additional instrument to the main procedure of therapy (Edwards, 2004, p.8).


The term art therapy was coined in 1938 by Adrian Hill. The American Art Therapy Association defines this process in the following way: the therapeutic applying of art creation. Art therapy pioneers relied on Freud’s idea that the inner “I” of a person can be manifested through visual form whenever he/she paints and sculpts spontaneously, as well as Jung’s thought about the personal and universal symbols. The central figure in this process is not the patient, but personality that is striving for self-development and expansion of the range of his or her features.

New growth of interest to the works of art therapy arose in the middle of the XX century, when it became widely used primarily in psychiatric and somatic therapy. Except of the certain cases, it was considered as a secondary factor in psycho prophylaxis and psychotherapy, which allows overcoming the consequences of social exclusion of patients. In this case, art therapy was greatly influenced by biomedical concepts. The specialists who carried out art therapeutic work of this kind, as a rule, did not have a serious academic training and were unable to play any active role in the treatment of patients. Their main task was to provide patients with the opportunity to conduct the simplest forms of graphic activity, during which they could be distracted from disease-related adverse emotions. Besides this usage, the term “art therapy” in this period had options of rehabilitative practices. Some of such procedures were initiated and implemented mainly by artists in studios that were organized in large hospitals. Nowadays, art therapy is a therapeutic use of fine art by client that involves the interaction between the author of a work of art, the work itself and the specialist. Creating visual images is regarded as an important means of interpersonal communication and as a form of cognitive activity of the client, allowing him/her to express previous or urgent “here-and-now” experiences that are not easy to put into words.

One of the main forms of art therapy is drawing. From the point of view of art therapy, drawing is rather a kind of activity of the imagination than a manifestation of an artistic talent. It provides an opportunity for the expression of aggressive feelings in a socially acceptable manner. Drawing also contributes to a sense of internal control and order, as the process of painting leads to the need to organize the shapes and colors.

Painting has a huge impact on a person: it sets the mood and creates certain feelings. Drawing develops sensory-motor coordination, as it requires the coordinated participation of many mental functions. According to experts, it participates in the coordination of interhemispheric relations, because in the process of drawing concrete creative thinking activates. Using picturesque therapy in their work, practical psychologist chooses topics of drawings to provide the client with the opportunity to express his/her feelings and thoughts graphically. Typically, topics include: attitudes towards himself/herself, his/her family (“I have in the past”, “I am the way I am”, “My typical day”, “I’m home”, “My World”, “The situation in which I feel not confident”,”Me and my children”,”My main problem in communicating with children”), abstract concepts (“Loneliness”, “Fear”, “Love”, “Three Wishes”, “Island of Happiness”), relationship to the group (“What I got to work in a group”, “What I gave the group”). Experts say that certain colors evoke specific emotional states and call the appropriate mood. Red and yellow colors give one a cheerful, active mood, green color is the most calming one, it elevates mood, helps to relax when patient suffers from nervous irritability, insomnia

German psychiatrist F. Mohr created the first painting task with psychological aim in 1906. Next, scientist F. Goodenough developed a test to evaluate the children’s intelligence called the Draw–A–Man Test in 1926. The point of the test was that the more details were included into the child’s picture, the cleverer he/she was (Malchiodi, 1998, p.45)

In the context of art therapy artistic activity can be referred to as spontaneous as opposed to planned and carefully organized activities that are taught in the art or craft of various groups of people. Researchers involved in art therapy agree that artistic ability or special preparation of patients are not needed to use art as a therapeutic instrument. For art therapy process itself is important, the features of the mental life of the creator that the end product of creativity helps to identify. Specialist encourages members of the group to express their inner feelings spontaneously and do not worry about the artistic merits of their works.

An exercise in drawing doodles can serve as an example of spontaneous use of imagination. Participant draws a wavy line without lifting a pen or brush of paper without any plan for a long time. The purpose of this exercise is to give one the opportunity to spontaneously express emotions. During this exercise unconscious components of the psyche of the participant appear. Then the person is looking for some time on the picture and tries to understand, whether the visual images can help to understand any situation, objects or characters in his/her subconsciousness.

The attractiveness of the method of art therapy for the modern human is that it mainly uses non-verbal ways of expression and communication. In the process of creativity the right hemisphere of the brain is actively used. The modern civilization involves mostly verbal communication system and left “logical” hemisphere. Normal harmonious development of person implies an equivalent development of both hemispheres and normal interhemispheric interaction. Moreover, certain types of human activity require just the right hemisphere work. They are creativity, intuition, cultural education, the device family, parenting, and of course, romance in romantic relationships. Art therapy is appealing to the internal, self-healing resources of the person closely associated with its creative possibilities. As a result, in the psyche of the individual a variety of adaptive mechanisms is produced. They allow people to adapt to life and to be more successful in a constantly changing world. Art and creativity are the result of information processing in the interaction with the outside world.

The positive effect of art therapy can be considered through the various examples. AAT managed the study that included the usage of this approach in order to help veterans to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder. The therapy helped to reduce frequency of nightmares and helped them to sleep well. Art therapy is also quite useful in treatment of schizophrenic disorder; it helped patients to cope with delusion and hallucinations. (“Art Therapy”, n.d.). One more bright example of recovering effect is the case of Sir Anthony Sher, who was cocaine addicted for 20 years. Now he is staying clear for 13 years due to art therapy (Godchild, 2009).


However, sometimes art therapy can be useless or provides no effect on the separate patient. As usual, the percentage of the people who was not helped by art therapy is very low. Helen Burt conducted the study in Chicago Northwestern Memorial Hospital on the influence of art therapy upon the cancer symptoms. The survey showed that eight of nine symptoms were affected: tiredness, pain, depression, lack of appetite, anxiety, shortness of breath, global distress core and well-being. The main symptom that was not influenced by art therapy was nausea. As for patients, 90% stated that the effect was positive and resulted in the better overall health condition. Nevertheless, two subjects stated that therapy had no effect (Burt, 2012, pp. 184-185). The reason of the cases when art therapy does not work can be in practicing the therapy organizing patients in groups. Sluvson stated that sometimes group trainings of art therapy are stressful for people because of the fear of critic of the members of the group, and participants cannot perceive the whole effect from the procedure because they cannot concentrate on their inner condition (Waller, 2015, p. 37).

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